Football’s governing body has appointed supermodel Adriana Lima as its first global fan ambassador five months before the Women’s World Cup, a move denounced as “tone-deaf” by former FIFA council member and Australia international Moya Dodd.
She complained that Lima’s public image was an “odd fit for an organisation that says it wants to empower girls and women” and questioned whether a former Victoria’s Secret model was best-placed to show players and fans what empowerment and equality could look like.
When it comes to insulting the women’s game, FIFA has form, unfortunately. Long-time president Sepp Blatter once said: “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty.”
Hopefully, FIFA has moved on since those remarks were made nearly 20 years ago. But its judgement remains as suspect as ever. Current president Gianni Infantino claims Lima “lives and breathes” football and will be an “excellent link” between the sporting body and fans worldwide. The Brazilian supermodel has previously had no official involvement in the sport, but once appeared in an advert for Kia, posing in stilettos in front of a team of American footballers, apparently trying to persuade them of the merits of “soccer”.
The problem for FIFA is the same as for any brand choosing an ambassador. Does it feel authentic?
Are they relevant to the brand’s audience? And do they represent their values, mission and purpose?
Some critics have pointed to Lima’s strong religious views, which they find potentially divisive. That might be an issue for some, but it is a red herring. More pertinently, she has endorsed the unhealthy practices that go with being a supermodel, once admitting to The Daily Telegraph that she starved herself for nine days before fashion shows, drinking only protein shakes to lose eight pounds.
Body image is a serious issue, not just in women’s football but across many other sports. British Gymnastics is currently facing legal action from gymnasts who were “body shamed” by abusive coaches – shameful practices which were laid bare in merciless detail in the 2022 Whyte Review.
The success of the 2015 #ThisGirlCan campaign was based on telling real stories of women who play sport “in all its sweaty, jiggly glory”, regardless of their shape or size. As Dodd observes: “Where a supermodel fits into this is truly baffling.”
Ipsos and SeeHer, the global movement to eliminate gender bias in advertising and media, recently published a White Paper which found that positive female representation drives positive business results, but concluded that realistic portrayals of women were an important component.
Not only that, but Lima is Brazilian and the next Women’s World Cup will be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, so she has no geographical connection to the event. Relevance is integral to choosing the right ambassador to represent a brand. She might “live and breathe” football, but Lima feels irrelevant to a World Cup in Australasia.
Will her appointment make any difference to the success of the event? Of course not. But, after the controversy of the men’s World Cup in Qatar, it feels like another own goal from football’s governing body.
Tim Jotischky is director of reputation at The PHA Group